Firefox News -- Firefox.org - http://firefox.org/news
Horror—What Works and What Doesn’t: The Fewdio Interview
http://firefox.org/news/articles/2884/1/HorrorWhat-Works-and-What-Doesnt-The-Fewdio-Interview/Page1.html
Peter Gutiérrez
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. He is also a contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez 
By Peter Gutiérrez
Published on 07/10/2009
 
With the release of their first DVD, Nightmare House vol. 1, just around the corner at San Diego Comic-Con, it seemed like a good time to catch up with the reigning kings of Web horror…

DVD Debut: July 22-26, 2009, at San Diego Comic-Con International
With the release of their first DVD, Nightmare House vol. 1, just around the corner at San Diego Comic-Con, it seemed like a good time to catch up with the reigning kings of Web horror…

And if you aren’t familiar with the output of this L.A.-based alt-collective of filmmakers over the past eighteen months, then head over to Fewdio.com or just check out YouTube, where these shorts first became hits. Originally started by five Hollywood vets who found themselves with some time on their hands during the writers’ strike, Fewdio has evolved into a wider group of talent that, together, produces effective short-form horror with alarming regularity.

Now, with Nightmare House, which contains 13 shorts plus bonuses, fans can enjoy these nifty films on their TV screens. By the way, they even look good on theatrical screens, which should not be too surprising: these are not shaky-cam offerings from guys running through their backyards as they track some huge dude with a machete. Rather, the Fewdio shorts often represent throwbacks to story-driven, old-style horror but told with a contemporary sensibility and modern technique.

How (and why) can Fewdio do this—consistently create polished, above-industry fare when others who attempt short horror tend toward the formulaic and the amateurish? I sat down with writer-directors Drew Daywalt and David Schneider to learn their secrets. And if you’d like to meet the rest of the core troupe—Paul Hungerford, Jon Crye, Kirk B.R. Woller, Todd Sharp and Marshall Carr—you might want to drop by the Fewdio booth at Comic-Con.


 

Firefox News: This first volume of Nightmare House clocks in at an hour and forty minutes, but how cohesive is it as a package? I’m guessing there’s no Crypt Keeper-like character linking all the films for the audience.

Dave: The Nightmare House shorts can all be viewed independently. But watched together, they’re not entirely disparate, either. Characters come and go. For example, the main character in “The Feed” is a minor (but pivotal) character in “The Tale of Haunted Mike.” Certain themes are touched on throughout the shorts, and there are also little background surprises that careful viewers of all the films might catch. The second grouping [of shorts] will be called “Cursed Earth,” and will have an even more defined running theme. It will actually run perpendicular to Nightmare House and, in fact, a film that is part of Nightmare House, “Curse,” is also a very important part of Cursed Earth.

Does FEWDIO represent a “hobby that took over your lives”?  That is, have you spent far more time and effort—including the launch of the first all-horror-shorts Web site—on it than you originally planned?  

Dave: It definitely started as a hobby that became much more. “Curse” was actually the first one we shot. It was really just friends getting together to make a short film, but we had so much fun, and were so happy with the results, and felt we had so many more stories to tell… why not? We couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than hanging out with a bunch of friends, making movies.

Drew: We got into horror to explore the dark side for ourselves. And if we're totally honest and vulnerable about what scares us, we'll create real fear and dread for our fans.

All right, so what’s “good horror” to you guys?

Drew: Good horror is about three things. Isolation. Personal danger. And the unknown enemy. The twist ending is optional. When we started doing horror, we realized that, structurally, it’s the same as comedy – or a magic trick – set up, set up, sudden unexpected left-hand turn. It was there that we found the importance of the twist ending, or the prestige as it’s known in magic. But in horror storytelling, it’s not a necessity to use the twist.

The films are not awash in gore, but they don’t avoid it either. The emphasis instead seems to be on storytelling, and the result is that the viewer gets a little of the vibe of old school anthology comics. But because the pieces are so short, there’s also a literary vibe—you can almost see the paragraph breaks. In fact, the best ones screen like adaptations of classic short stories except these short stories were never published. So I’m wondering, how does the work of the masters influence you?

Drew: When I was five or six, my Grandpa, who smelled like old cigars, told me the only thing that ever scared him was the man he couldn’t see. He meant it as advice to keep my eyes open, but what I thought was that there was always some boogieman, off in my peripheral vision that I couldn’t see. And THAT’S the monster that haunted me for years. If it scared you as a child, there’s a good chance we’re filming it. In the concept that “we create nightmares,” we want to bring horror back to the primal sense of creep and dread, not just cat-jumping-out-at-you startles. Lovecraft and Poe spring to mind. Their subtle imagery is horrifying and awful in a way that has been entirely lost in the last 20 years of gorehounding and literal cat-out-of-the-closet fake-outs.

Can you cite any specific short story titles that you admire and maybe that the Fewdio films aspire to in some way?

Drew: For me, my influences have been less about other filmmakers or writers and more about what really scares me. I was a frightened child, the youngest of 6, and we grew up in a massive 160 year old house with back staircases and servants quarters. When my parents moved in, the place was abandoned and well known as the town’s most haunted house. When it was first built, it was a stagecoach stop and an inn, and some of the stories around it were horrifying.

That said, I’m a big fan of "The Whisperer in the Darkness" and "The Thing on the Doorstep" by Lovecraft.  My only regret about trying to make Lovecraft into film is that it’s damn near unfilmable. The guy articulated his evils almost entirely in the negative. For instance, “The unimaginable terror which crept through me was instigated by the unearthly, indescribable awfulness which stood now before me.”  Okay… try handing THAT to a production designer to draw. Lovecraft had the advantage of using our own imaginations as his palette. Sadly, something that’s hard to replicate as a filmmaker.

Dave: Pretty much the entire H. P. Lovecraft catalog, take your pick. We’re also big fans of Poe. As a ghost story fan, I have always been a fan of the short stories of E.F. Benson. I remember discovering a collection of his short stories as a kid and being particularly spooked by "The Thing in the Hall" and "The Other Bed." I love the way he shapes tension in such constrained spaces, and it’s definitely had an effect on my storytelling.  As far as more modern writers… I love what I’ve seen from Joe Hill so far. His novel, Heart-Shaped Box, sucked me in from the very beginning. His short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, was a bit hit-or-miss, but more hit than miss. I particularly liked the title story, and "The Widow’s Breakfast."

Fear in our DNA, YouTube, and Uwe Boll…
Why the desire to make shorts, then? Was it short stories or something else?

Dave: We’ve always been fans of the short film, and decried that there wasn’t more of a market for them. Our first short, “HATE* A Comedy” (not really a horror film, but it definitely played off the genre) played the festival circuit and we eventually sold it to HBO/Cinemax. But all in all, there traditionally hasn’t been a place for filmmakers to show their short films, or for fans of the format to regularly see it. If a filmmaker made a short film, it used to be mainly as a calling card to get his feature. We’ve always felt this was a shame, as there’s so much you can do in a short film, and in a lot of ways, you can have even more fun with it than you can with a feature, getting away with little fun things that you couldn’t do with the budget/expectations of a feature.

Dave: Our inspirations were really the half-hour type horror from things like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery. And as we get to the slightly longer Fewdio shorts, I think people will see that influence more.

Dave: But, because of the means of easier and cheaper distribution arms like YouTube and Futureshorts, the world is being exposed to more and more great short horror, like "Spider."

All right, so there’s a lot of good stuff out there. But there’s a lot that’s bad, too. Why is that?

Drew: So many people get horror wrong because they think it's about the creature. The startle. But it's not. It's about the victim. Human beings, like other pack or herd animals have evolved to read the expressions of their fellow man as a survival tool. So when the victim is honest and real, that fear transcends the screen into the very DNA of the viewer. As if to say - they're scared, I should be too, for my very survival. That's why fear and horror films translate so well internationally. Everyone knows instinctively how to save their own ass.

With so many folks not getting horror, I’m wondering how a massive distribution channel like YouTube fits into things. Is it a key tool for aspiring short form horror filmmakers? Anything you’d want to share with others thinking of going the same route—either its advantages or pitfalls?

Drew:  Ahhh, YouTube. It’s the quintessential coming to fruition of Andy Warhol’s claim that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. If only he knew how close that future would be.  In the past we’ve done a lot of comedy and action, but when you look at the Internet and YT in particular, there are just too many people doing Comedy shorts. And really good ones. The market is awash. No one is doing horror properly. That's what Fewdio delivers. YouTube is proof positive that storytelling isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it is. If it were, YouTube would be filled to the brim with stories. But it’s not. It’s filled with people documenting their lives, speaking their opinions, etc and that’s great. But there is a real dearth of storytelling on YouTube--and everywhere on the web… Fewdio is first and foremost about STORY and CHARACTER. Even in a 2 minute short, if you can emotionally connect with the character and their situation, the horror will come naturally.

All right, but how does their Web-based delivery impact how you conceive and produce these films?  For example, do you favor compositions that will be clear and uncluttered even on “screens” that are only a few square inches in area?    

Dave: Well… it really hasn’t. We frame them and compose them as we feel they should be on a film by film basis, and have only taken minor considerations into the fact that some of them may only be seen on the Ritz Cracker-sized screens of the Internet. We did have some discussions and concerns at some point about this very issue, and wondered if maybe letterboxing some of the films to very wide aspect ratios might diminish their impact on the small-small screen. But ultimately, we decided to let the look of the films dictate those issues. And I don’t think we made a mistake by that… we haven’t heard once a complaint about the viewability (is that a word? It is now. I declare it so) of the films.

All right, let’s move away from YouTube and go to the other extreme. As individual Hollywood vets, FEWDIO’s members have worked with everyone from Spielberg and Nolan to Uwe Boll (!).  What things that you have learned from these filmmakers, either what works or what doesn’t, that you have brought to your own work?     

Dave: It sounds like a cliché, but always, always, believe in what you do, and do it to satisfy yourself first and foremost. Make your films for yourself, and you’ll find your audience. It may only be a handful of people on YouTube; it may just be your best friend, hell, it may just be you yourself, but do it for yourself.

We were at an early cast and crew screening for Memento, back when it was having trouble getting a distributor. I remember hanging out afterwards with the producers and Christopher Nolan, who seemed pretty bummed out that his film wasn’t getting its chance to get out there. But he made what he believed in, never gave up, and… things have worked out pretty well for him.

Drew: Dave and I were hired to write a movie version of the game HUNTER: THE RECKONING by White Wolf Publishing. Hunter is a spin off game of the popular RPG VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE. In that world, some people can see reality for what it truly is – with monsters and creatures of the night everywhere you turn. It was a hero myth where a young man learns he has the ability to see werewolves and ghosts walking and living amongst us in every day society. He’s faced with the choice of ignoring this new knowledge or embracing it and fighting the good fight to defend all the people who fall victim to these dark forces. We wrote it, everyone was ecstatic, we took it to market and the highest bidder was… Uwe Boll. We were devastated. Uwe is a great guy and we really liked him, but good LORD is he a sh***y film maker. I remember the day our agent called with a long face and said,  “Uwe is doing Bloodrayne first, guys. I’m really sorry.” And we were overjoyed, much to our agent’s confusion. I was like, maybe he’ll learn how to direct on Bloodrayne before he gets to our script. Thank god for us the script went into turnaround. Maybe we’ll get to direct it some day down the road.


Horror comics, twisting the ending, and the meaning of the word "Fewdio"...
Speaking of directing, in the many films you’ve co-directed, how does the division of labor tend to break down?  Does one of you work better with actors, the other with crew—or do you kind of take turns being each other’s AD?

Dave: Generally speaking, Drew is working with the camera and lights and setting up shots, while I work with the actors. But that certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule, and there’s a lot of mix and match. And since on most of our films, we ARE the entire crew, we’re juggling all sorts of responsibilities and ideas. Drew has gravitated towards cinematography while I’ve gone to editing. This has affected our on-set roles, as Drew utilizes his flair for creative camera work and framing beautifully composed shots, while I tend to think overall picture, concentrating on what type of shot might work best or be needed for the finished, edited product. Micro and macro, both vital elements of filmmaking. We do a lot of pre-planning on everything we do, so by the time we get to the set, we know what we want as a team and can divide and conquer tasks.

Okay, but let’s talk about writing. Namely, how important is the twist-at-the-end to audiences of short horror? Do they expect or demand it? Any concern that you can’t depart from that formula, that you’re at risk of it determining the shape of your narratives to too large a degree?

Dave: I’d say it’s relatively important, but not absolutely vital. Obviously, in the short film format, you have less time for character development, so story becomes even more important. And since you have less time to develop character, and make a satisfying resolution that involves character development and growth, it tends to fall on having a satisfying twist. This certainly isn’t to say you can’t have strongly developed characters or that a twist is required. In some of our longer shorts, we attempt to concentrate more on character and less on the end twist/scare. Comedy is in reactions, and so is horror. If the audience isn’t scared for the character’s well being, they’re not going to be scared themselves. In our longer shorts, where we have more time to stretch out and let the audience have more time to build up a relationship with the character, we try to play with that more.

Were you fans of short horror specifically before starting Fewdio and making your own?  And if so, what are some films/filmmakers you’ve admired or that have been an influence?

Drew: When I was little, my oldest brother was an art student and had a great sense of the macabre. And he always had a stack of moldering old horror mags and comics lying around. I’ve been a fan of short horror films and stories since I was a kid reading Haunted House and Tales from the Crypt comics. There was also always a copy of Weird Tales laying around the house. So I dove into those heavily as a child. For me, my influences have been less about other filmmakers or writers and more about what really scares me. I was a frightened child, the youngest of 6, and we grew up in a massive 160-year-old house with back staircases and servants quarters. When my parents moved in, the place was abandoned and well known as the town’s most haunted house. When it was first built, it was a stagecoach stop and an inn, and some of the stories around it were horrifying. Part of that old house is still with me, and fuels my involvement with Fewdio. Horror has always been the bastard child of pop literature, but we're hoping to follow in the footsteps of the greats--guys like H.P.Lovecraft, Rod Serling, Edgar Allan Poe. Not the sensationalists--the storytellers.

Creators like Lovecraft and Poe, though, were legendary loners. So tell me, what’s the secret to keeping a collective together and productive?

Dave: Beer. Also talking. We yell at each other, but in the end, we talk it out, and mutual respect keeps us together and productive. That and beer.

Drew:  It’s interesting. There are a lot of comedy troupes out there. But Fewdio is the first Horror troupe. We're just like the comedy people, only we're not doing humorous sketches, we're doing horror sketches. And at the end of the sketch, instead of a laugh, there's a gasp or a cringe. Fewdio started when we threw up their hands at the bureaucracy and the politics and the bull***t [and] said, "Let's just do it ourselves." We're trying to break new ground here by creating the Internet's first all horror shorts website. I mean, the Internet has just about everything now and to be creating something wholly new is really cool.

I always figured “Fewdio” was a composite of “few” + “studio”—but is there another meaning? The definition’s not on your site as far as I can see, or in the press releases, so what do you tell people when they ask about it?

Dave: We tell them it’s just a made-up nonsense word that has absolutely no meaning whatsoever. But then again, we’re probably lying about that.

(laughs) All right, moving on, then: will Fewdio ever venture into horror features? Or serve as the launching pad for its individual members to do so?

Dave: There is definitely the intention of making a Fewdio feature. We always plan on making shorts, because we genuinely do love the format and are not using it simply as a launching pad, but yes, we do also plan to expand.

Drew: We absolutely have plans to move to features. We’re in negotiations now to do something with several companies, but it’s early in the process, so no news yet.

Good to hear. In closing do you have anything else to say to horror fans? Any pet peeves, one-liners, aphorisms?

Drew: People say that films like The Shining and The Exorcist and The Orphanage transcend the genre. But that’s a real backhanded complement to the whole genre. They don’t transcend the genre at all. What they do is exemplify the genre. It’s at its best when it terrifies AND makes you care about the characters. There's no reason horror films can't also be cinema. The very best horror starts with story and is told with style and panache. John Cleese once said that watching a someone go crazy is not funny, but watching someone WATCH someone else go crazy IS funny. Same goes for horror. Watching someone witnessing an awful thing is a powerful tool. One that not enough horror directors really use. I think Miike is probably the best at this technique.

He might be—but you guys are right up there. Good luck with Comic-Con and the DVD release, and thanks for your time.